March 1, 2024 • By Dennis Beaver

Have you or someone you know ever been let go from a job, not because of something that you or they did, but just because the boss could? In all states but one, most employees are “at will,” meaning, in general, that they can be let go for any legal reason.

And that can be terribly unfair.

“But it is different in Montana. This state, with a population of less than 1.5 million, may very well have one of the most significant roles to play in the ability of employers to release someone for virtually any legal reason, immediately and without the need to prove justification,” observes New York attorney Steven Kelly, former associate commissioner at the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.

Kelly, who is a friend of this column and lectures for LearnFormula, a provider of continuing education courses for many state bars across the country, added, “If you remember the hysterical Peter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared, that’s Montana. While it is too soon to call it a trend, there is reason to believe the worker protections Montana enacted decades ago might be considered by other states, bringing our country in line with the rest of the world.

“In fact, ‘just cause’ as a basis for termination is being debated in a number of state legislatures, while New York City and Philadelphia already have similar laws in place.”

‘At will’ Permits Flexibility But Creates Uncertainty

Flexibility is often cited as a justification for hiring “at will,” where employers are free to hire and release to meet staffing needs, but they must act within the law. Employees are able to quit at any time. But many people in HR will admit that the result is uncertainty and often, a greater amount of fear for most employees than you find in countries where a job is more along the lines of a property right and can’t be terminated without justification.

The Fallacy in Advice to Business Leaders

For this column, I interviewed a number of business leadership experts. Every one of them recommended creating psychologically safe environments that encourage employees to honestly share their feelings and opinions.

But, as Kelly observes, “Without something along the lines of a just-cause basis for termination, employees are still reluctant to speak truth to power. When they do, far too often they are fired. For example, last year, much of the world was fixated on the Titan submersible disaster that imploded during its effort to visit the Titanic.

“Warnings of its danger were ignored — and the employee who predicted failure was fired by the company’s owner. That could not happen in a just-cause jurisdiction. But this scenario is not unique.”

Employers Need to Adopt Best Practices

Kelly points out that no employee should be surprised that they are being terminated.

“It is clear that movements to empower workers are gaining momentum. While ‘just cause’ may not happen overnight, employers — from mom-and-pop small businesses to large corporations — may need to retool their procedures for dealing with employees at risk for termination, out of basic fairness and in order to avoid wrongful-termination lawsuits,” he underscores.

An Employee Handbook is Essential

And let us not ever forget the risk of workplace violence committed by an employee who had no idea of impending termination.

HR consultants and labor lawyers recommend that the way to keep all employees on the same page is to have an employee handbook.

“Best practices dictate beginning with a well-drafted employee manual that sets out job descriptions (what is required), what can lead to a disciplinary process and what’s going to take place during that process. It should include addressing the issue in a prompt manner and seeking input from the workers themselves,” Kelly recommends.

“As these are difficult conversations, it is critical that employers contemporaneously document the interaction and treat everyone in a consistent manner.”

Employers shouldn’t go it alone

“The handbook should be written with the help of counsel,” Kelly adds. “While this might seem to be a burden to a small-business owner, in today’s highly litigated environment, every business needs to have access to counsel well-versed in current laws who can help draft the handbook.”

I asked, “Won’t some question why?”

“Yes, and because, this is an area where it’s critical to partner with legal counsel at the very beginning, and not wait until you’re at the point where you’re making a decision to fire someone, or perhaps have already. An attorney can assist in drafting the employee handbook and also making sure everything that you’ve written in there complies with the law.”

Our interview concluded by Kelly asking this question: “Is your employee manual comprehensive enough to take into consideration virtually every scenario that the lawyer thinks your business, based on its size and on the number of employees, could encounter?

“Given the ever-changing nature of laws related to hiring, disciplining and terminating workers, it certainly better be.”